The rapidly changing situations at the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy sites around the country have some interesting similarities not only to the widespread upheavals of the Arab Spring (and summer, fall...) but also to continuing mass protests in Spain which began at Puerta del Sol on May 15. I have no special grasp of the direction or significance of these unfolding events. But here are some scattered observations from my visit to Liberty Square in New York last Saturday and from recent readings and conversations.
1. The perception that 99% of the USA is victimized by the wealthy 1% is growing throughout the country, topic of widespread discussion in the press and on the Internet. Hence, the name the New York demonstrators have chosen -- “the 99%” – is appropriate and resonant.
2. The corporate news media is upset, reduced to babbling incoherence, when faced with the mystery of “Who are they?” and “What do they want”? Evidently, citizens gathering together to bear witness to an obviously dysfunctional economic and political system is not sufficient to merit coverage and comment.
3. As in Spain, there are “General Assemblies” in the plazas of the Occupy gatherings. Demands and proposals evolve from these ongoing discussions. Because the processes of debate, deliberation, and decision-making are “horizontal” rather than top/down “vertical”, mainstream journalists and pundits simply cannot understand how agreements arise. These seem similar to the circles of debate I saw in Madrid last June, ones still going strong well past 11:00 pm in some neighborhoods. This is the reinvention of public space.
4. Celebrities are flocking to the sites of protest, Michael Moore and Cornell West, for example, but are by no means the “leaders” the media hopes to identify. As in Spain, there are people who take on specific commitments – the “legal team,” “media team,” etc. But this is deliberately not a step toward the selection or even self-selection of “leaders.”
5. The police ban on electronic amplification has actually played to the advantage of the protestors because they have invented the “The People’s Microphone” in which people loudly repeat the words of the speaker so they can be heard on the periphery.
6. Protests are spreading and their size seems to be growing. This coming Wednesday is Occupy Colleges day in the U.S. Students will walk out of classes and off campus. Here’s a report from my alma mater, U.C. Berkeley, in The Daily Californian:
“ Occupy Colleges — a movement that stemmed from Occupy Wall Street — is calling for a national campus walkout Wednesday at 12 p.m. to protest rising college debt and a lack of jobs for graduate“Do not go to school. Go fight for yours and everybody else’s rights at Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Los Angeles or your nearest Occupation. The time is now to join our fellow %99!” stated Occupy College on its Facebook page.
7. As I noted in an earlier post, it seems as if the protests have begun use novel forms of software, e.g., Vibe instead of Twitter. Net video sites also present live streams and video archives of events. To some extent this makes up for the media blackout of Occupy events. If software, online communication and face-to-face gatherings achieve synergy -- watch out!
8. Gatherings and demonstrations in this genre are self-policing, effectively so far. . For example, people who gather in Liberty Square in New York to avoid possession or use of alcohol and drugs in the park.
9. The press and a scornful public decry the presence of “smelly hippies” and unsightly places where then sit, lie down and sleep. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, however. The police have banned tents, camping equipment and other facilities that would otherwise keep protest sites clean and neat. And from what I saw, Liberty Square volunteer janitors are doing a good job.
10. As in Spain and the “No les votes” (Don’t vote for them) campaign, Elections and “one’s vote” now seem much less important than previously. The 99% recognized that the political parties, the ruling elites and political leaders (including Obama) no longer understand their needs and do not even begin to represent them. They express a common question: Are these the best leaders our nation can produce? Much like the “indignados,” the Occupy Wall Street and similar strands of the movement will probably continue voting, but will look for new ways of participating and applying pressure.
11. While no one is talking about the movement in exactly these terms yet, actions of this may carry some of the pungent force of Vietnam War protests. “What are we doing? We’re raising the costs of your goddam war.” In this case: “We are raising the costs of the economic devastation our ‘leaders’ have caused.”
12. As in Europe, creating an economy in which there are millions of young people unemployed with no jobs in sight is a formula for social unrest. My placard for Liberty Square might read:
America take notice – We’ve Got a LOT of Time on Our Hands!